THERE is a political problem baking under the hot sun at Guantanamo Bay, a political problem ringed with razor wire, housed in wooden barracks, living amid rats and scorpions while soldiers watch from guard towers.
But the truth is that all political problems turn out to be people, in one fashion or another. This one is 267 people, held in a latter-day leprosarium on a U.S. naval base, waiting for a decision about what will become of the rest of their lives.
They are Haitians, mostly adults, some children, who left their homeland in boats for the succor of the United States more than year ago. Their illusions about a voyage to freedom seem pathetic now. Immigration officials determined that all of them had credible claims for asylum. But the Haitians have had to prove that not only their motives but their blood is pure. The Guantanamo Bay encampment, in Cuba, is home to those who turned out to be HIV positive, a place called limbo.
It exists because of a ban, the ban that forbids immigrants who are infected with the AIDS virus to enter this country. The American Bar Association opposes the ban. The American Medical Association has said it is scientifically specious. And Bill Clinton campaigned on overturning it. That was the hope of the people in limbo.
Last week the Senate decided to pre-empt the president and voted to make the ban federal law. This was not homophobia or xenophobia, some members insisted: it was fiscal prudence. Letting potential AIDS patients into the United States could result in increased health care costs.
If health care cost analysis is to be our future immigration policy, then why stop at HIV infection? What about cancer patients? Or, for that matter, likely cancer patients -- if a woman wants to come here but has a family history of breast cancer, do we really want to take the risk that she may contract the disease and cost us money? Shouldn't we take a second look at diabetic immigrants, immigrants with heart problems, immigrants who smoke and are at much greater risk of contracting emphysema and lung cancer than those who do not?
Of course not. We should consider whether people are coming here, as they always have, because they fear real repression or truly seek to build a better life. And then we should let them in believing, as we always have, that the vast majority of immigrants wind up enriching this country. "Huddled masses," it says at the base of the Statue of Liberty. "Wretched refuse." Not "perfect specimen."
The Clinton administration has not kept faith with the beleaguered people of Haiti. Candidate Clinton promised a change in the Bush administration policy that sent Haitian refugees in boats back to their island home without a hearing; President Clinton changed his mind, saying he was afraid of lost lives at sea. Candidate Clinton promised an end to the immigration ban on HIV-positive foreigners; President Clinton appears to be loath to tangle with Congress over this issue.
But behind every issue there are just people, in one fix or another, and the people in limbo are essentially in jail for no more reason than that some are sick, some are HIV positive and some are family to those in the other two groups. The portable toilets are stinking; sheets are hung within the barracks for some nominal privacy. It is difficult to imagine the same sort of provisions being made by the American government for Irish immigrants or Soviet Jews without considerable public uproar.
The unsanitary and overcrowded conditions would be bad enough for healthy people, never mind those with depressed immune systems. One immigration spokesman, asked about denials of requests for medical airlifts to the United States, was said to have responded, "They're going to die anyway, aren't they?"
They won't go back because they fear death. We won't let them in because they face death. So they sit within their cattle enclosure, waiting for death. Mr. Clinton can think of this as a potentially unpopular decision, for it surely is. Or he can think of it as real people, with real lives, like the woman who wrote from Guantanamo Bay to her two children earlier this month, "Don't count on me anymore, because I have lost in the struggle for life." So much for lifting our lamp beside the golden door.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.